[News] Jamal Joseph and Impact! at the Oscars

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Feb 21 11:06:45 EST 2008


February 21, 2008

Oscar Nomination Caps Columbia Film Professor’s Long Journey


Dozens of people have been nominated for Oscars 
this year, but none of them got there quite the way that Jamal Joseph did.

Mr. Joseph joined the Black Panthers in Harlem as 
a teenager, had a role in a criminal case that 
practically defined the term cause célèbre and 
later went to prison for harboring a fugitive in a deadly armored car robbery.

It was there, in the federal penitentiary in 
Leavenworth, Kan., that Mr. Joseph wrote his 
first play and earned two degrees. He began 
teaching when he got out and eventually became a 
professor at Columbia. He also helped found 
Impact Repertory Theater in Harlem, a nonprofit 
performing arts group for teenagers and young adults.

During the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, the 
group is scheduled to perform a song Mr. Joseph 
helped write called “Raise It Up,” which was 
nominated for an award for best original song and 
was part of the soundtrack of the movie “August Rush.”

Mr. Joseph, 55, flew to California with 25 young 
members of Impact Theater on Wednesday. The night 
before, a crowd gathered inside an old industrial 
building in Hell’s Kitchen for a send-off party. 
Mr. Joseph stood in a vestibule near an elevator, 
talking about his trajectory from being accused 
of crimes in the 1960s to being honored 40 years 
later by the Hollywood establishment.

Mr. Joseph said he was merely continuing a form 
of community-based social activism that he 
endorsed decades ago. “We knew back then that we 
had bright minds questioning the world,” he said. 
“Now I want to create a space for the best and 
the brightest minds of this generation.”

Mr. Joseph is now the chairman of the film 
division at Columbia’s School of the Arts, but in 
1968, at 15, he was among those protesting at the 
campus when student dissenters and their allies 
seized control of school administration buildings 
including Low Memorial Library and the office of 
the Columbia president, Grayson L. Kirk.

A year later he was among a group of Panthers who 
were charged with conspiring to blow up police 
station houses and the New York Botanical Garden 
in the Bronx. Leonard Bernstein 
held a party on Park Avenue to raise funds for 
the accused, and Tom Wolfe 
lampooned the event in a famous essay called “Radical Chic.”

Mr. Joseph’s case was severed from the others 
because he was a minor and he was not tried on 
the conspiracy charges. In 1971 a jury acquitted 
the remaining defendants after deliberating for 
less than three hours. The columnist Murray 
wrote a book about the trial called “The Briar Patch.”

In 1981, Mr. Joseph, who also went by the first 
name Edward, was charged with taking part in the 
robbery of a Brink’s armored car in Rockland 
County in which two police officers and a guard 
were killed. He was acquitted of participating in 
the robbery but convicted of helping hide another 
man who took part. He spent five and a half years in Leavenworth.

He earned two college degrees there, started a 
theater group and wrote his first play, “Beyond 
the Call of Duty,” about Vietnam veterans.

Mr. Joseph began teaching at Columbia 10 years 
ago. Around the same time he helped found Impact, 
which members said was financed by private 
donations and teaches subjects including dance, 
drama and writing. It emphasizes dedication and 
discipline, and participants, who range in age 
from early teens to early 20s, spend eight hours 
rehearsing every Saturday. Mr. Joseph said that 
Columbia was going to begin providing rehearsal 
space for the group, which has been practicing in 
the building where he lives with his wife and three children.

The group has performed at the Plaza Hotel 
the Green Haven state penitentiary and the Apollo 
but never on quite as large a stage as it will on Sunday.

“Raise It Up” is among three songs that group 
members recorded for “August Rush,” which is 
about a homeless child who hears music in all of 
the mundane sounds of the city and lives with a 
band of runaways in the old Fillmore East Theater 
in the East Village. The theater members were 
invited to record songs for the film by James V. 
Hart, an author of the screenplay and a friend of Mr. Joseph’s.

“A song that was written from the hearts of their 
experience is going to be performed Sunday night 
at the Oscars for a tiny audience of a billion 
people,” Mr. Joseph told the crowd at the party 
as the performers posed behind him.

The group performed two songs, dancing and 
singing to recorded music. Then it was time to 
perform “Raise It Up.” The song started slowly, 
with a rhythmic synthesizer, then built toward 
soaring gospel-tinged vocals. The performers 
danced and beamed, and the audience sipped glasses of wine and clapped.

Carolyn Wilder contributed reporting.

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San Francisco, CA 94110

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